I think I am one of the most modest men around," says Bob Hoffman, the millionaire president of the York (Pa.) Barbell Co., undoubtedly the best-known organization of its kind in the world. "I don't really feel so important, but I do have a reputation as the man who knows more about physical fitness than anyone else. I was born with a desire to be strong. I have even permitted men to place a 150-pound anvil on my stomach and hammer on it with a 15-pound sledge. But I am most renowned as the world's greatest chain-breaker. I have a large chest with little meat on it, and because of this I don't have to worry about the chain cutting me too much. With my amazing chest muscles I have broken chains that lift over 5,000 pounds.
"My first memory in life is of me trying to stand up in bed after I had typhoid," Hoffman continues. "I fell down. I had scarlet fever when I was 3, but at age 4 I ran 100 times around a double tennis court. On my 10th birthday I won a modified marathon. I've always had tremendous endurance, and some of the kids I used to play against would just give up because they knew I would always win. I've been a champion at every sport I've tried, including swimming, weight lifting, golf, handball, football and canoeing. I've won over 600 sports awards."
("When I think back on my childhood," he said a few years ago, "it does not seem possible that today the whole world looks up to me as the most ideal specimen of the human body. It is a great responsibility.")
"Remember, you are talking to the world's healthiest man. I have not been ill in 42 years. The last time I was sick was back in 1919.1 had ptomaine poisoning. I had just got out of the Army and was on my way home. On the train I ate a ham sandwich and that's how I became ill. Before going home I stopped in Pittsburgh to compete in the national canoe championships.
"Even though I was sick I still had such terrific endurance that I was able to win the quarter-mile championship, as well as several other events. One of the others was the canoe-tilting. That's where one man in each canoe tries to knock the other into the water by use of a long pole. I was always pretty smart, and I became champion at this by out-thinking the others. One thing I did was lift dumbbells with my feet so I could stand in the canoe and actually get a better grip with my toes. Another thing I did was chin myself from a bridge and lift a 70-pound canoe with my toes. The paddle and stroke I used were much the same as the Germans used to win with in the last Olympics. I used a scoop paddle and I made a lot of short, fast strokes rather than a few long, slow ones. That helped me win the quarter-mile championship in 1919. I had also won it in 1915, '16 and '17. I was busy in 1918."
Hoffman was busy with World War I. "For 11 days in a row I led the advance patrols in the Argonne Forest. Three times I was the only man to return from patrol. One day I led 17 other men, and one by one they were picked off. I was the only one to make it back. That's why I tell people I am supernaturally lucky. Once I had marks from 12 bullets on my body and uniform and a grenade went off near my face. Another time I captured 38 prisoners singlehanded. I got a lot of medals, including the Belgian Order of Leopold. In some of my early ads I used to have a little write-up about my accomplishments during the war. Joe Weider [Hoffman's archenemy in the muscle field] didn't believe I had won all the medals I mentioned and he demanded an investigation. All it proved was that I had more medals than I even knew about. By the time it was all over I found I had been awarded 11 medals."
The DSC and the Golden Rule
Hoffman does not like to be reminded that a Federal Trade Commission investigation showed that he had never won the Distinguished Service Cross, a claim he also had been making in his advertisements for barbells. Nearly all his life Hoffman has been getting into trouble and making enemies because of things he has said. (Hoffman's defense usually consists of a statement that he lives by the Golden Rule, to which he adds, "Let them take potshots at me. They shot McKinley and Lincoln, and they were both nice guys.")
"It's true that Bob has an awful lot of muscles," says one of his York neighbors, "but it's too bad so many of them are attached to his jaws." On the other hand, it also is true that Bob Hoffman has been largely responsible for U.S. success in weight lifting in the past few decades; indeed, without him this country might never have entered teams in international competition. Hoffman has coached nearly every team we have fielded, including the last four Olympic squads, which won 27 medals. Certainly it is because of his constant lobbying and numerous trips abroad (at his own expense) to promote competition that the world championships were scheduled to be held this summer in Hershey, Pa., just a short drive from York. Hoffman was planning to help pay for the feeding and housing of all participating athletes. A few weeks ago, apparently for political reasons, the championships were shifted to Budapest. Hoffman will pay much of the expense of sending a U.S. team. No recent squad of American weight lifters has competed internationally without substantial support from him.
Hoffman himself still looks and acts like an athlete. He is 6 feet 3, weighs 239 pounds and at 63 he can lift 250 pounds with his right hand; he was 43 when he set the world record of 282 pounds in the one-arm bent press.